Jerry Johnston Queries Regarding the $2.8MM Templeton Grant to Study “Nones”

13 January 2017

“Nones” represents 21 – 28 percent of American adults have disaffiliated from the church or organization religion. This represents a staggering cohort of 55-70 million Americans.

It was my third time to film with Stephen Bullivant, PhD, this week. We have also filmed in Oxford and London, England. Bullivant was an atheist who helped co-found the Nonreligion and Secularity Network (NSRN) in England with Lois Lee (co-editor of Secularism and Nonreligion and of the De Gruyters-NSRN book series, Religion and Its Others: Studies in Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity), Miguel Farias (he now leads the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University), and Jonathan Lanman (Director of the Institute of Cognition & Culture, and Lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast.) An initial conference was conducted in 2009 in Oxford, England, dedicated to the social scientific study of atheism – 40 years after (March 1969) the request by Roman Catholic Church Second Vatican Council’s symposium on “The Culture of Unbelief” in Rome. Bullivant states, “One-third of all cradle Catholics now identify as having a different religious identity other than Catholic and of those, nearly half of the total, identify as “no religion,” and that is going to be the same for Episcopalians or Baptists—across the board.”

While some may ignore or deny the “nones” phenomenon in North America, the John Templeton Foundation, Understanding Unbelief is a major new $2.8MM dollars research program, aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world. The growth of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ in many parts of the world is attracting increasingly wide attention. Yet significant questions remain about how to understand such phenomena, and scientists rely still on categories developed by social actors, not social scientists, to do so. We do not currently know how best to characterize the various forms of unbelief as psychological and sociological phenomena, the extent to which other beliefs – about religion, or the existential – underpin these forms, how diverse they are, and how they vary across demographic groups and cultures. Yet understanding the nature and variety of unbelief is necessary if we are to answer big questions about the causes of ‘unbelief’ in the future, and its effects on such outcomes as personal wellbeing and social cohesion. The “Understanding Unbelief” project will be the first major scientific research program to address the nature and variety of unbelief.

“Bullivant: Umm, so the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network began you know kind of three doctoral students in a post-doc in England, and it grew because we realized very rapidly that this was an area that a large number of grad students but also established scholars in the social sciences were starting to get interested in, psychology, anthropology, umm political science, sociology. Umm, so we had a conference in 2009 in Oxford, which was as far as we know the first conference dedicated to the social scientific study of atheism and kind of related phenomena since 1969, which is when the Vatican had one. Umm and, now its, you know there’s there’s dozens of people umm across the world, although, you know, there’s large pockets in North America and western Europe umm working in this area. There’s all kinds of fascinating new stuff coming out.

 Johnston: Well this has been fascinating. Thank you, Dr. Bullivant. And we’ve been talking to Stephen Bullivant, author of the upcoming NonvertMass Exodus, and the 2019 co-leader, of the new John Templeton project. We look forward to connecting with you in the days ahead.”

Stephen Bullivant is a Visiting Fellow at UCL SSS (Secularity and Secularism Studies) at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics and Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Stephen is co-leader of the The Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief (SSNB) project and of the Understanding Unbelief (UU) programme. For more information on Stephen’s work, visit his UCL webpage.


Researchers, Drs. Jerry and Cristie Jo Johnston, are Executive Producing a quick-paced film via trans continental, staccato interviews documenting the shocking rise of the non-religious.